I read an essay in The New York Times this winter (“Ashes to Ashes, but first a nice pine box”, February 2, 2014, by Jeffrey Piehler) that was very moving, despite it’s dark theme. Dr. Piehler was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer eleven years ago. But finally, the warranty on his life is running out, and he suggested to his wife that he build his own coffin. Of course, she was horrified. But the process of designing and building his own pine coffin enabled him to find peace in the nearness of his end.
I experienced this kind of wisdom in my mother’s death this spring. She fully accepted the inevitability of her end after her second heart attack this winter. She faced each choice with incredible equanimity—having the breathing tube withdrawn in the hospital, going to the rehab unit, joining hospice, replacing her bed with a hospital model, accepting comfort care so she could die at home, and waiting for me to leave before she passed away. She told her aide that she didn’t want to die with her “baby”, (that’s me) present. She died holding the hand of my niece and stepsister less than 48 hours after I walked out the door. My good friend Tracy tells me that she wrote the book on facing death with openness and acceptance. I agree.
I think that we all imagine how we will face our own end. We think about what we want and what we don’t want. We might imagine our deathbed, surrounded by loving relatives and friends. But life (and death) rarely lives up to our expectations. We all know that our lives will end. But how and when is a mystery. Of course, what happens after we die is the ultimate unknown, no matter what we believe. Theories abound, but we don’t have any facts to rest our arms on.
Some of us imagine our funeral, memorial service, or celebration of life—however we like to think about it. We might envision our eulogy. What would you like the master of ceremony to say about you? If you wrote your own memorial, what would you say about yourself? What would you like to emphasize? Who would you like to give your eulogy?
These musings are like the pine box that Dr. Piehler lovingly built with a master carpenter. He selected the pine. He sanded and polished each piece and then glued them together, even though he planned on being cremated in this wooden container. What does this labor bring us? Dr. Piehler says—“While the coffin is indeed a reminder of what awaits us all, its true message is to live every moment to its greatest potential.”
This is the teaching on the inevitability of death. I will never forget my mother’s last lesson to me. My wife and I organized her 91st birthday party in her apartment a week before she passed away. She sat in her easy chair, had the aide put on her make-up, pick out bright colored clothing, and brush her hair. She had Diane and I put up red and yellow colored streamers. She ordered Japanese take out. She had her oxygen tank put away.
She sat with her friends, chatted, and her best friend, Shirley, 95, sat next to her, holding her hand. She ate with gusto, asking for more sushi. She knew her end was near. She was fully in the moment, savoring the joy of life. She gave, what I called her Bilbo Baggins speech (as in the Hobbit) to her friends before they sang Happy Birthday—“This is a very important birthday. It is my last. What I have learned in my life is the importance of love. I love all of you, my friends.” Then, with the very little breath she had, she blew out the single candle that represented 91 years of life.
I am not sure that it is necessary to build you own coffin to learn how to live in the present. But what I do know, is that acceptance of the inevitability of death reminds us to be here now.